Indy’s Bass Photo Company: Becoming History by Documenting History
By Mary Giorgio
For over 120 years, the W. H. Bass Photo Company remains Indianapolis’s oldest continuously-operating photography company. Famed for its pictorial documentation of the city’s history, the photo company’s work has graced the walls of numerous businesses, museums, and private homes, and it all sprang from the efforts of an amateur photographer and school teacher William Bass.
The James Bayne Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, founded the W. H. Bass Photo Company in 1897, when it opened a satellite office on South New Jersey Street in downtown Indianapolis. The company specialized in commercial photography, engraving, and catalog printing, but discontinued its Indianapolis operations after just two years. The business was acquired by Walter T. Woodworth and Bass. Woodworth had been a photographer for the Bayne Company; Bass had only dabbled in the art. It was Bass, however, who would soon become the business’s driving force.
Born in Bartholomew County in 1851, William H. Bass worked as a miller for several years in the town of Edinburgh, before contracting tuberculosis. Bass convalesced for nearly two years, but eventually regained his health and enrolled at the Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute, graduating in 1875. From 1875 to 1901, Bass taught school in Indianapolis, and advocated an expansion of technical training opportunities for high school students. Bass helped establish Manual High School’s curriculum in 1895 and taught woodworking and pattern-making at the school. Bass resigned in 1901 to pursue his photography career full time.
Woodworth and Bass operated their photography business under the name Woodworth & Company until 1901 when they rebranded as Bass and Woodworth. Sometime between 1904 and 1905, Woodworth sold his interest in the company to Bass and withdrew to start his own company. The plucky little company became the W. H. Bass Photo Company in 1905.
Under Bass’s leadership, the W. H. Bass Photo Company grew into a well-respected local business. Specializing in commercial photos, its customers included furniture manufacturers, interurban companies, architects, and local factories. Early on, he landed a coveted contract with Eli Lilly and continues to do photography work for Eli Lilly over a century later. In Bass’s early days, however, the business’s most lucrative customers were local furniture companies. Bass photographers would photograph a company’s product line, then produce hand-colored catalogs for salesmen to carry.
Another key figure in the company’s early years was Charles Branson, who joined the firm in 1899 as a messenger. A talented photographer and hard worker, Branson worked his way up through the ranks, assuming the role of manager in 1904. Branson was born in Scott County before moving to Indianapolis and attending business and art school prior to joining the Bass Photo Company.
It was during these early years that Bass hit on an idea that would become his company’s greatest legacy. Not wanting to waste the extra photo paper left at the end of a job, Bass instructed his photographers to snap images of street scenes, buildings, and city life. Between 1899 and 1971, Bass’s photographers took thousands of photos of Indianapolis streetscapes, compiling what ultimately became the most complete collection of historic images of the city of Indianapolis. As streetscapes changed over time, the Bass Photo Company captured the city’s changing landscape.
In 1912, buoyed by their early success, the W. H. Bass Photo Company incorporated with Bass, Branson, and Edwin H. Schafer (a company photographer) as directors. Under their combined efforts, the company continued to grow its client base. Local department stores began to hire them to photograph their window displays, and they soon became the preferred photographer for the city’s many interurban railroad companies.
In 1922, Charles Branson was named company president. When Bass died in 1936, Branson inherited the company and ran it until his death in 1948.
In 1936, Branson’s son-in-law, Ted Abel, joined the company as an accountant. When Branson died in 1948, Abel was chosen as the company’s next president. The company’s last founding director, Edwin Schafer, retired in 1963. The Abel family gained a controlling interest in the company, thus cementing their claims to the family business. Abel’s two sons both worked as photographers at Bass Photo Company in the ensuing years. Gerald Abel eventually took over as company president following his father’s retirement.
In 1987, the company decided their collection of photographs belonged in a historical institution. They sold the 200,000 negatives to the Indiana Historical Society, which eventually digitized many of the collection’s images for the public.
Just what does this massive collection contain? Some highlights include photos of the dedication of the Indianapolis Soldiers & Sailors Monument in 1902, images of Indianapolis’s first auto show, and shots from early Indianapolis Motor Speedway races. In addition, the collection contains one of the most comprehensive sets of images featuring Indianapolis’s interurban rail system.
What started as an inventive and frugal way to prevent wasted photo paper evolved into a unique collection of images documenting urban life in Indianapolis. Historians, librarians, architects, and city planners use the images daily to reconstruct the city’s past. As much a part of Indianapolis’s history as the photos that made it famous, the W. H. Bass Photo Company, now over 120 years old, continues to operate out of its original location on South New Jersey Street.